June's plan to steal the children of Gilead comes to a thrilling conclusion with shocking consequences for her and every other major player in season's best episode.
In an absolutely stunning season finale on "The Handmaid's Tale," June's master plane to sneak 52 children of Gilead out of the country came to a gripping climax punctuated with powerful moments, performances and thrills.
In a season with as many downs as ups, it was remarkable how beautifully executed this episode was. There was tension building from the first moment until the final climactic moment with June staring death right in the eyes and not flinching. Yes, there was one painfully obvious moment, but even there we felt like we'd earned that feel-good moment after slogging through the first half of this season, and much of Season 2.
The entire episode took place on one day in Gilead; the most pivotal day of June's entire captivity, for this was the day the children would be leaving their captivity for good. Of course, in order for that to work, a lot of things needed to go in June's favor. And we remember what happened the last time June counted on a plane for escape from Gilead.
Meanwhile, things took a darker turn in Canada as the Waterford betrayal proved it can run both ways, which was satisfying on a visceral level while being disappointing at the same time. Serena Waterford has been the most complex character on the show thus far, so we can only hope that the writing team has something big planned for her after the events of this episode.
In fact, that's perhaps the best part of this incredibly satisfying finale. Not only are viewers left fully satisfied with a definitive conclusion to the driving arc of this season, but there are so many questions in the air as to how the show can move forward after this. It's an exciting question to have and much the same feeling we had at the close of Season 2 when June had managed to facilitate Nichole's departure from Gilead with Emily.
At that point, so much had changed that we knew June couldn't go back to the Waterford house where we could repeat familiar ground ad nauseam, as it felt like much of that lackluster season did. And by the close of this finale, once again we know things cannot go back to the way they've been this past season. Or can they?
There were so many beautiful moments in this hour, director Mike Barker did an absolutely stunning job of utilizing fresh camera work to evoke different emotions throughout the hour. Immediately, he left viewers feeling disoriented and frightened as they saw June and a group of women being herded around aggressively by armed guards, mirroring the feelings of the women themselves.
Handheld cameras in this scene and the terrified rushing of the women huddled together evoked the powerful imagery of "Schindler's List" when the women were being ushered into the gas chambers of Auschwitz. As if to emphasize the inhumanity of their captors, we first saw women with Down syndrome (or similar conditions) being led to their deaths, while others were stripped of their belongings, clothing and dignity.
It took a few moments to grasp that this was a flashback to when June and the other women were first being captured and transported to the Red Center for reconditioning by Aunt Lydia and her cohorts. Viewers were fearful that this was perhaps the end result of June's rescue efforts. Instead, it served as a powerful reminder of what she'd already endured.
And it was the perfect prelude to the chaos to come as June facilitated another hurried run, only this time it was a run toward freedom and not away from it. That these two masses of frantic humanity bookended the episode was no mistake. "To the ruthless go the spoils," June said she realized in that opening moment, when she saw that decency had not survived in Gilead. It's a hard lesson, but one she had to learn herself.
It's a hard balance, sacrificing your humanity for the sake of humanity, but when dealing with the inhumane, is it really a sacrifice of yourself or the righting of an injustice. Is it balancing the scales, as June told Joseph the world does demand, or is it giving in to the same darkness that created Gilead? There are no easy answers or decisions, but sometimes decisions must nevertheless be made.
There were two moments that were painfully obvious, with the first being the escape of Maggie, the Martha who brought Kiki to the house before dark. She had apparently only heard of Mayday, but took a chance anyway. The problem is that she chickened out and fled when June wouldn't let Kiki go back home with her. In that moment, though she had threatened to kill Maggie if she ran, June held back.
It would prove both a costly and obvious mistake, as of course Maggie would get arrested and institute a city-wide search to shut down the entire operation. There have to be stakes and danger or this wouldn't make for very good television. It's a little disappointing that the setup was so obvious from the beginning, but they handled the payoff well enough we can forgive it.
Because of Maggie, after all, we got the quick change of plans that would see the Marthas, Handmaids and children running through the woods in imagery evoking the Underground Railroad. It was late at night, a little chaotic and with danger around every corner as the guardians were searching for them. And again, we got some beautiful imagery of the frightened women of all ages risking everything to bring the children to freedom.
The second obvious moment came when the guardians arrived at the airport and set up shop next to the airplane. Of course June was going to make the call to sacrifice herself so that Kiki and the other women and girls could make it to the plane in safety. And of course she wouldn't be allowed to.
You could practically count the seconds between the moment June picked up the rock and the other women arrived to help her. Of course Janine and the other Marthas and Handmaids weren't going to let her do this herself. June had already tasked Rita with assuring the children got onto the plane, and clearly the other women decided it wouldn't take all of them to get across the airstrip and on board.
And yet, kudos to writer Bruce Miller for throwing in a little surprise with a double sacrifice moment for June, who stepped into the light at that climactic moment to assure that the guardian would abandon his truck and give chase. Even being shot at, she never stopped running, luring him further and further away.
And when she was finally shot down, she waited until he arrived and then turned the tables on him with the gun she'd hidden in her boot, only he didn't die either. And so she was faced with a second chance to do what she couldn't with Maggie after having the guardian call in an "all clear" so the other men would disperse and no more would come.
Should she let him go as she did Maggie? The difference is that Maggie was just frightened and as much a victim of this place as Kiki, June and all the other women. This man, though, chose this world, chose to enforce these laws. And of course he would turn her in or worse if she let him live. Plus, this is the June who was able to stab and beat Commander Winslow to death. This man didn't stand a chance.
As June bled out on the ground, she saw the plane take off and knew that she had achieved something monumentally important. This wasn't one child, this was dozens and dozens of children, stolen away in the night from a regime that would subjugate and abuse them. This was her greatest moment of triumph, and now her moment of greatest question for what comes next?
Meanwhile, in Canada, Serena had been enjoying great freedom as she continued to cooperate with the United State government in exile, as well as international agencies. They were gaining all kids of intel about Gilead and it looked like her immunity might actually grant her as close to her goal of having a life with Nichole as possible.
But Fred had one more ace up his sleeve, and proved that betrayal runs deep on both sides of the Waterford family. There was no reason to throw Serena under the bus other than sheer jealousy and pettiness, both of which Fred has in abundance. And so he revealed the family's worst kept secret; that Serena had forced Nick to impregnate June since Fred could not.
And just like that, Serena is arrested for crimes against humanity to sit right alongside her husband again. It's an interesting place to leave the Waterfords, and Serena in particular. Fred is practically a cartoon villain, simple and predictable at every turn. But Serena is wily and clever. She's also obsessed and driven by her obsession with Nichole.
We had hope for Serena turning into a force of good to help June in her quest to free Gilead, but this season saw her go further into the darkness. Now, she has a chance to become a truly diabolical villain. Fred turned on her, so what more can she do to him, to Gilead to get what she wants? She's as much an architect of the state as Lawrence, so she certainly has plenty more intel she could provide.
It was a shockingly uplifting and exhilarating finale of television on a show that finds hope and joy in short supply most days. In the end, June's mad scheme actually worked and the children were freed from the shackles of Gilead, with at least Rita along for the ride. It was hard to see how many other Marthas made it onto the plane, but at least we now know that Rita has escape and now (interestingly) resides in the same country as the Waterfords. What secrets does she have?
On a show filled with amazing actors and actresses, special mention must be given to Amanda Brugel as Rita in the moment she touches down on Canadian land. Her physical performance was everything as she realized the enormity of where she was and what it truly meant. And then, to meet June's friends and ultimately her husband was almost too much.
"She did this," Rita told Luke through a powerful embrace. "June. Your June." The emotional weight of that moment was so palpable in a scene already wrought with tears and jubilation.
The realness of what these kids represented was punctuated by Kiki getting recognized by one of the volunteers working at the hangar. Earlier, she'd told June that she didn't remember life before Gilead. She didn't remember a reality where she could wear whatever she wanted and be whatever she wanted. But just as Hannah had done, Kiki remembered herself as Rebecca and the man as he father.
It was a beautiful moment and a reminder that these kids are not just the stolen children of Gilead. They were stolen way before that, and they have real parents out there somewhere. Some are probably still in Gilead, some probably got out and many others are probably dead. There's a high cost for the atrocities being committed every day in the former United States.
Even more than the Season 3 finale, it seems impossible that June or anyone could settle back into any semblance of normalcy. Even if June can make her way back to the Lawrence household, where she left Joseph, Gilead has just lost dozens of its children. There will be consequences.
Aunt Lydia was already suspicious that June and her other "girls" were up to something and now she'll know for sure. Especially as we learned that at least one Martha had to kill her Commander and Wife to steal the child away. Are any Marthas or Handmaids safe in this district?
How will June convalesce without raising suspicion? She's been shot, after all? Or do June and the girls finally go underground completely, working from the shadows to continue their mission to disrupt and destroy Gilead from the inside out, while their good deeds empower the international community to do the same from the outside in.
With the Waterfords, the world is already building a case against Gilead for crimes against humanity. Rebecca and the other children only serve as further proof of the depths of their depravity, ripping children from the families for no reason other than hubris or selfishness. Or perhaps because their mother makes good breeding stock for your other families of privilege.
Certainly it's going to be difficult for Gilead to maintain its lies that Handmaids are volunteers, no one is made to suffer needlessly and they are a just and humane nation to all of their citizens. But they are still a military powerhouse with absolutely no morality, so what is the appropriate international response? It'll be interesting to see going forward.
The path for the Waterfords is unclear at this point. The path for the Handmaids and Marthas is unclear. Joseph's path is unclear. Even Rita and the children face an uncertain future in Canada. There is bound to be ruthless retribution within Gilead, and perhaps even threats on a global scale that their children be returned to them.
"To the ruthless go the spoils," June said and there is perhaps no nation as ruthless as Gilead.
But they're not the only ones who've proven themselves ruthless.
"The Handmaid's Tale" certainly lived up to its moniker as one of the best shows on television. From unstoppable performances to beautiful shots and a relentless script, this was the best the show has been in a very long time. And we're left breathless and more excited for the next episode than we've ever been.